Self-Righteousness Is Not A Strategy

Greg Satell
6 min readApr 8
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Not long ago I was participating in a discussion on the social audio app, Clubhouse, and I said something a lady didn’t like that triggered her emotions. “Obviously, you need to be educated,” she said before subjecting me to a prolonged harangue riddled with inaccuracies, logical gaps and non-sequiturs.

Yet putting the merits of her argument aside, her more serious error was trying to overpower, rather than attract, in order to further her argument. If anything, she undermined her cause. Nobody likes a bully. Perhaps even more importantly, silencing opposing views restricts your informational environment and situational awareness.

This is why Gandhi so strictly adhered to the principle of ahimsa, which not only proscribed physical violence, but that of words or even thoughts. Everyone has their own sense of identity and dignity. Violating that will not bring you closer to success, but will almost certainly set you on a path to failure. Self-righteousness isn’t a strategy, but the lack of one.

Forming An Identity With Differentiated Values

Humans, by nature, seek out ideas to believe in. Ideas give us purpose and a sense of mission. That’s why every religion begins with an origin story, because it is our ideas that differentiate us from others and give us a sense of worth. What does it mean to be a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, a socialist or a capitalist, if we’re not differentiated by our beliefs?

So it shouldn’t be surprising that when people want to express their ideas, they tend to start with how their beliefs are different, because it is the dogmatic aspects of the concepts that drive their passion. Perhaps even more importantly, it is their conspicuous devotion that signals their inclusion with a particular tribe of shared identity.

Humans naturally form tribes in this way. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to out-group members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. Evolutionary psychologists attribute this tendency to kin selection, which explains how groups favor those who share their attributes in the hopes that those attributes will be propagated.

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer,@HBR Contributor, - Learn more at